Gandhi’s first satyagraha 131 years ago

On June 7, 1893, a young lawyer named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was unexpectedly thrown from the first class compartment of a ‘whites only’ train at the Pietermaritzburg railway station in South Africa. This prompted Gandhi’s first act of non-cooperation or satyagraha (Truth Force).

Recall again

Incident at Pietermaritzburg

On the night of June 7, 1893, Gandhi was traveling from Durban to Pretoria when a railway official asked Gandhi to leave his first-class seat and move to a third-class compartment. Gandhi refused to go, saying he had a valid first class ticket.

A police constable was summoned and Gandhi was removed from the train at Pietermaritzburg station. That night he was shivering in the waiting room of the train station as he resolved to fight against racial discrimination.

The path of non-violent resistance

The Pietermaritzburg incident is seen by Gandhians as one of the most important moments in Gandhi’s life. As he wrote in his autobiography, what happened to him was only a symptom of the deep disease of colorism and he felt it was his duty to fight it.

Indeed, Gandhi’s time in South Africa profoundly shaped his personal and philosophical evolution. He debated with Christians who challenged his own orthodoxy. And, it pushed him to achieve an inclusive spirituality. He legally protected Indian businessmen against discrimination. Resisted efforts to disenfranchise Indian voters in Natal. He also wrote a guidebook for Indian students reflecting his commitment to personal and professional development.

“The South African years were very important for Gandhi. His most enduring legacy to India and the world is a unique form of political protest,” Ramachandra Guha wrote in India Before Gandhi (2012).

Writing letters, articles and petitions, and even facing imprisonment if demands were not met, Gandhi theorized and practiced satyagraha in South Africa before using the same method of non-violent resistance against the British in South Africa. From the Civil Disobedience Movement (1919-22) to the Civil Disobedience Movement (1930-34) and the Quit White Movement (1942), the principles of non-violence were central to India’s freedom struggle.

Later, they influenced other movements for justice globally, from Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement in the United States to Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid.

Ramachandra Guha writes: “I am writing this in August 2012, 65 years after India’s independence, 44 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in America, and 23 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 18 years after the end of apartheid, Gandhi’s words are less visible than when he first uttered them, amid ongoing nonviolent struggles for democracy and dignity in Burma, Tibet, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere.

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